Press freedom concerns as India editors’ body charged over Manipur report

Manipur police file cases against members of the Editors Guild of India, accusing them of promoting enmity between different groups.

A demonstrator holds up a placard, as police officers detain others during a protest against the alleged sexual assault of two tribal women in the eastern state of Manipur, in Ahmedabad, India
A demonstrator holds up a placard, as police officers detain others during a protest in Ahmedabad against the alleged sexual assault of two tribal women in Manipur [File: Amit Dave/Reuters]

Guwahati, India – Police in India’s Manipur state have filed two cases against members of the Editors Guild of India (EGI), accusing them of trying to incite more unrest in the northeastern state, where deadly ethnic violence has simmered since May.

The cases, also known as first information reports (FIRs), filed in two separate police stations on Sunday came a day after the country’s top editors body issued a report condemning the local media’s “one-sided” reporting of the months-long violence in the remote state.

The FIRs, filed based on complaints by two individuals in the state capital Imphal, names the EGI office bearers – Bharat Bhushan, Sanjay Kapoor, Seema Guha and the press body’s president, Seema Mustafa – accusing them of promoting enmity between different groups, defamation and criminal conspiracy among other charges under the Indian Penal Code.

More than 150 people have been killed in the months-long violence between the majority Meitei community – who are predominantly Hindu – and the Kuki-Zo tribes – who are mainly Christian – with rights groups raising alarm over the role of the state government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

More than 65,000 people have been displaced, with the brunt of the violence faced by the Kuki-Zo.

‘Serious concerns’

The United Nations’ rights experts on Monday condemned the Indian government’s “slow and inadequate response” to the alleged rights violations.

“We have serious concerns about the apparent slow and inadequate response by the Government of India, including law enforcement, to stem physical and sexual violence and hate speech in Manipur,” the experts, including the Special Rapporteurs on violence against women and girls and on torture, said in a statement.

Modi broke his 79-day silence on Manipur violence in July after a video showing two tribal women being paraded naked caused a global outcry. He promised the guilty will not be spared.

“What has happened to the daughters of Manipur can never be forgiven,” he said on July 20.

But opposition parties have accused the prime minister of doing too little, too late. They have also accused the Hindu nationalist BJP of stalling a debate on Manipur in parliament, where they demanded a statement by Modi.

The EGI in its fact-finding report released on Saturday said the Manipur media seemed to have turned into a “Meitei media” amid the conflict as it referred to the allegedly biased reporting in favour of the dominant ethnic group.

The editors’ body said its report, which collected facts between August 7 and August 10, was based on representations made by several parties, including the Indian army about “the uneven and biased reportage of the ethnic clashes in Manipur by the local and national media”.

In July, the EGI had issued a press statement expressing concern over the “noticeable bias in the coverage that is contributing to divisiveness and violence”, which was later followed by a public fundraiser for the fact-finding trip.

Dozens of houses lay vandalized and burnt during ethnic clashes and rioting in Sugnu, in Manipur, India
Dozens of houses lay vandalised and burnt during ethnic clashes in Manipur [File: Altaf Qadri/AP]

Manipur, a state of 3.2 million people, has been without internet connection since May, making it difficult for journalists to report from there. EGI said the internet ban had a “deleterious effect on journalism” as it directly impacted the communication lines between reporters, editors and sources.

At a news conference on Monday, Manipur Chief Minister N Biren Singh questioned the EGI’s authority to conduct a fact-finding inquiry in the state and accused the editors’ body of “coming to a conclusion after meeting some sections” of the society.

The complainant in one of the FIRs alleged the EGI report was sponsored by “narco terrorists”, a term often used by some BJP leaders to refer to the minority Kuki-Zo tribes, who are also called “illegal immigrants”.

Condemning the report, Singh said the state government acted against the editors’ body for “trying to create more clashes”.

The action against the EGI came as its report highlighted the allegedly partisan role of the state leadership in dealing with the ethnic violence.

Kuki women leave after attending a protest against the alleged sexual assault of two tribal women, in Churachandpur district in the northeastern state of Manipur
Kuki-Zo women protest over the alleged sexual assault of two women in Manipur [File: Adnan Abidi/Reuters]


Meanwhile, the All Manipur Working Journalists Union (AMWJU) and Editors Guild Manipur (EGM) called the EGI report “half-baked”.

The two press bodies said the report had many contentions and “wrong representations” that were damaging to the reputation of the journalist community, especially the Imphal-based media.

Among several findings in the report that it countered, the statement said the EGI report failed to represent the views presented by AMWJU and EGM, particularly the violence and threats faced by Manipuri journalists. They also objected to the charge that they were taking dictation from the chief minister.

Pradip Phanjoubam, senior journalist and editor of Imphal Review of Arts and Politics, said the EGI report was produced “in a rush”.

“There are so many discrepancies, with them depending on hearsay without checking up the records which say something else,” he told Al Jazeera. “These guys came here for four days and came to a conclusion. They should not have rushed it.”

A correction was issued by EGI on a photograph carried in the report which wrongly captioned it as a Kuki-inhabited house burned in the violence. This was one among several other issues raised in the police complaint against the press body.

However, a local journalist who wished to remain anonymous for security reasons said there was no press freedom in Manipur.

“All media outlets here are serving their own respective communities. I have dialled down my journalism since this government came to power. Who wants the headache of a police case on them?” he told Al Jazeera.

The police cases come as India has slipped in the World Press Freedom Index, currently standing at the 161th place out of 180 countries. Reporters Without Borders, the non-profit that globally monitors press freedom, attributed the rank to the rise of the BJP led by Modi.

Under Singh, the chief minister, press freedom has been under attack in Manipur as well. Journalists have been slapped with defamation and sedition cases, as documented by another media watchdog, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

The watchdog recently released a statement over an attack on three Manipur journalists, allegedly by members of the Indian armed forces. The soldiers, in turn, accused the journalists of throwing stones at a government-operated drone, the CPJ said, citing news reports.

In another incident, a reporter from Aaj Tak, a Hindi news channel, told the media he was allegedly manhandled by a BJP worker in the Directorate of Information and Public Relations office in Imphal.

Several journalists working for the so-called “national” media outlets also said the EGI report was tilted in favour of the community that suffered greater losses. But they also admitted that local media reports in Manipur were biased in favour of the Meitei community.

A journalist, who wished to remain anonymous, said a church burned down on May 22 in Imphal’s New Checkon area was given a miss by the local media, as was an incident where a Meitei mob burned down an ambulance carrying a seven-year-old Kuki boy and his Meitei mother.

“Moreover, while our phones are seized when covering violence, local media journalists can freely go with their cameras in the valley because they will not identify the mob engaging in violence. Even the mob knows the local media will not expose them despite roaming freely with stolen firearms alongside local police,” said the journalist.

In a statement on Monday, the New Delhi-based Press Club of India condemned the FIRs against the EGI members and demanded they be withdrawn. It said the police cases were “a case of shooting the messenger rather than taking measures to restore peace in the state”.

Source: Al Jazeera